Girl playing a fingerstyle guitar scale
Here is your ultimate guide to playing scales with fingerstyle guitar

Are you looking for the best way to play scales for fingerstyle guitar? Let's look at some common and some less-common scales as well as their fingerpicking patterns.

To play fingerstyle guitar scales effectively, you will need to use walking fingers with the plucking hand, combined with a consistent fretting hand finger pattern. The choice of fingers that you use will depend on the scale you choose to play.

I will share with you my recommended finger picking pattern for several different scales you can play.

When practicing finger picking guitar scales, be sure to play the scale slowly and place great emphasis on finger placement and accuracy. The goal isn't speed, but proper technique when playing fingerstyle scales.

Your intention should be on coordinating both your fretting hand and your plucking hand. Use scales as an opportunity to improve finger accuracy and tone for fingerstyle guitar. 

You can practice both the major scale and the minor scale as a fingerstyle guitar warm up. But in this article I will propose some other scales that you can use with easier or more comfortable fingering patterns.

The C Major Scale for Fingerstyle Guitar

To play the C Major scale, you play the notes C to C without any alterations (sharps or flats), giving you the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B.

To play the C major scale for fingerstyle guitar, use a three note per string finger pattern; a combination of index, middle and ring fingers or thumb, index and middle fingers of the plucking hand.

With the fretting hand, I prefer to use the first, second and fourth fingers.

The C Major scale tablature and standard notation
Tablature and standard notation for the Two octave C Major scale on the guitar

Normally, when you pluck repeated notes, you'll want to avoid using the same finger twice in a row. I teach a method in Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now! called walking fingers, where you alternate plucking the same string with the index and middle fingers. 

Since we have grouped together three notes per string, let's instead of using only two plucking fingers, use a combination of three separate fingers. Use either the thumb, index and middle fingers or the index, middle and ring fingers of the plucking hands in repetition as you play the scale.

How To Play the G Major Scale for Fingerstyle Guitar

The G major scale consists of the notes G, A, B, C, D, E and F♯. The best way to play the three octave G Major scale with fingerstyle guitar is also using a three note per string pattern.  Play the scale ascending and descending, with the following fingering pattern:

The G Major Scale over two octaves - three notes per string
Tablature for the G Major Scale - Three-Notes-Per-String Fingering Pattern

What is an ascending vs a descending scale?

An ascending scale refers to a scale that is played from a lower pitch to a higher pitch. It starts from the root note and moves upward to the next octave of the same note. This is generally how we traditionally hear scales played. 

On the other hand, a descending scale is played from a higher pitch to a lower pitch. It starts from the root note at a higher octave and goes down to the same note at a lower octave. So, if we take the G major scale, the notes are in the following order: G, F♯, E, D, C, B, and A.

How To Play The Major Scale With Small Hands

The problem with the three-note-per-string fingering pattern of the major scale is the wide stretches between notes. This can be challenging if you are a guitarist with small hands.

One possibility is to only practice the major scale in higher positions, where the frets are closer together.  For instance, you could play the C Major scale, starting from the 8th fret instead of the G major scale which starts at the 3rd fret.

man playing in a higher position
Instead of trying to stretch your fingers, play a scale in a higher position.

How to Play The Chromatic Scale on Fingerstyle Guitar

The chromatic scale is what we get when playing all the notes on the guitar that are between the octave. The chromatic scale on the guitar contains four notes per string.

To perform the chromatic scale on the guitar, start at any note on the sixth string. Play each fretted note with each of the fingers, then switch to the following string, shifting the hand downwards by one position. For example, if you were to start on the seventh fret, play the frets 7,8,9,10 and then on the following string you would play frets 6,7,8 and 9.

The exception to this fingering pattern occurs when you reach the third string. After playing four notes in a row on the third string, you do not need to shift the hand backwards to continue the chromatic pattern on the second string. Instead, you continue the four notes without shifting.

We noticed with the major scale that there are "gaps" in the scale notes, caused by the unequal distance between the notes. The chromatic scale has no such gaps.

Chromatic Scale Tablature
The chromatic scale is fun to practice because it’s super easy to memorize and uses all the fingers. 

You can start playing the chromatic scale on any string and at any fret; in this example we started on the sixth string at the seventh fret.

For the chromatic scale, I recommend that you use all four fingers of your plucking hand: thumb, index, middle and ring finger. You don't have to use them in that order: find the order that suits you best. If you prefer to play ring finger first, then middle, index and thumb, you can use that fingering pattern.

Still other players start with the thumb, then play ring finger, middle finger and index finger.

How To Play The Harmonic Minor Scale on Fingerstyle Guitar

The two octave minor scale is not very much fun to play on the guitar because it involves extensive position shifts and not very logical finger patterns in your fretting hand. 

A Harmonic Minor Scale tablature
The A Harmonic minor scale - tabs and notes

To play the harmonic minor scale on the guitar, start by playing the first three notes on the lowest string.. Locate the tonic note, then play the supertonic a whole step (two frets) above the tonic, and the mediant a half step above the supertonic. Next play the notes using the same fret distances as the previous string.

To play the last two notes of the scale, shift your hand over one fret from the starting point and play the leading note, followed by the tonic a half step above the leading note.

How To Play The Freygish or Phrygian Dominant Scale

The notes of the Freygish scale are A, B♭, C♯, D, E, F, and G. These are the same notes which are in the D minor harmonic scale, except starting on the fifth note. The Phrygian Dominant scale is therefore known as the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale.

Tablature of the A Phrygian Dominant scale
The A phrygian dominant scale uses the same notes as D harmonic minor

A mode of the harmonic minor scale, the Freygish scale or phrygian dominant scale, is lots of fun to add to your warm up routine because of its exotic sound. 

However, the harmonic minor scale presents a problem to fingerstyle guitarists, because there isn't a very good regular finger pattern to use while playing the harmonic minor scale. The freygish scale uses a combination of two and three note per string pattern, which isn't ideal to memorize.

How To Play The Whole Tone Scale on Fingerstyle Guitar

The whole tone scale has a tone or a whole step between each note in the scale, and consists of whole step intervals exclusively. The distance of a tone on the guitar is two frets. There are six notes total to this scale. 

There are only two whole tone scales which are possible. The scale below contains the notes G, A, B, C♯, D♯ and F. The other whole tone scale contains the notes A♭, B♭, C, D, E, and G♭.

The whole tone scale fingering pattern is three notes per string and you can play it up and down the neck.

It's very simple to play the whole tone scale over three octaves. As with the finger pattern for the major scale, use the 1st, 2nd, and 4th fingers of the fretting hand, in combination with three different fingers from your plucking hand.

Unfortunately owing to the fact that there are two frets between every note on the scale, the stretches can be quite large. So this scale maybe isn’t a good choice for warming up the fingers.

How To Play Pentatonic Scales on Fingerstyle Guitar

The minor pentatonic scale which contains five notes and is simpler to play than the major scale. The pentatonic "box pattern" is very straightforward to play on the guitar. It's also a classic scale used in guitar solos found in Rock music.

The pentatonic scale uses a very simple finger picking pattern. Since there are only two notes per string, you can alternate between using your index and your middle fingers to pluck the strings.

Tablature for the A minor pentatonic scale
The finger pattern for the minor pentatonic scale is simple and there are no position changes.

I love the sound of the pentatonic scale. Unfortunately, once you get past a certain point in your guitar playing, practicing the pentatonic scale gets a little boring

How To Play The Hirajoshi Scale On The Guitar

The Hirajōshi scale, or hira-choshi (Japanese: 平調子) is a type of pentatonic scale that is excellent for working on position changes in fingerstyle guitar.  The Hirajoshi scale consists of the notes A, B, C, E and F. The intervals to play this scale are: whole step, half step, one-and-a-half step, half step, and two whole steps.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to remember the finger pattern for this awesome sounding scale.

The hirajoshi scale - notes and tablature
The ascending Hirajoshi scale contains a distinctly East Asian flavour, in contrast to the minor pentatonic scale which sounds more "bluesy".

How To Play The Double Harmonic Major Scale on Fingerstyle Guitar

The double harmonic major scale contains a lot of semi-tones, which means there are not many finger stretches. However, because it's not a very commonly used scale in fingerstyle guitar, it requires extra time to memorize it.

The double harmonic major scale consists of the notes C, D♭, E, F, G, A♭, and B. This scale has a unique structure, with two augmented second intervals creating a signature Eastern sound. The intervals between each of the notes are half step, one-and-a-half step, half step, half step, half step, one-and-a-half step, and half step.

The double harmonic major scale is derived from the harmonic major scale and has a distinctly Balkan sound.

The double harmonic major scale tablature and notes
This scale involves lots of jumping around the neck and no big stretches because of the nicely placed augmented second. 

How To Increase The Speed of Your Fingerstyle Guitar Scale

To play scales faster with fingerstyle guitar, you must practice with a metronome. Play the scale slowly and be very precise with how you place your fingers. 

Try to increase the speed of your scale by incrementally increasing the BPMs on your metronome. Keep track of your progress in a practice log and make this part of your warm-up routine.

If you are still looking for more fingerstyle guitar exercises, there are lots of songs you can play in the course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!